With 2001 upon us, I’ve heard much talk of “time capsules,”
selected artifacts to be stored and studied in years to come by people wearing
snug zip-up unitards and sipping Tang from floating mugs. These people will
analyze our Tamagotchis, our Wonderbras and Wonder Bread. They will also examine
our language. In the same way we look at antiquated speech (imagine if a steamy
date ended with the words “Wilt thou lay hands on me?”), they will study our
lexicon. That’s why I want to make sure we know what we’re talking about before
passing it on. In particular, the term “high maintenance”-which is in a close
race with “commitmentphobe” as the description du jour for so many frustrated
singles-is in desperate need of clarification.
Believe it or not, I myself was referred to as “high
maintenance” once. I remember saying to a boyfriend, “You want a woman who
knows what she wants from life, is very independent, has a good career and a
mind of her own, but never asks for anything.” These days, it seems like anyone
can be called “high maintenance.” But what, exactly, does it mean?
One man I spoke with
said that in the 1980’s-the golden age of padded shoulders and novels about
lovable losers with cocaine habits-“high maintenance” was a term associated
with money, namely a woman who sought a big car to go with her big hair. But a
more nuanced, and perhaps nefarious, version sneaked into the culture in 1990,
when the movie When Harry Met Sally came
out. Harry, Billy Crystal’s character, said: “There are two kinds of women,
high maintenance and low maintenance.” Suddenly, ordering a salad with dressing
on the side became the measure of the high-maintenance woman.
And that was just the beginning. While once “high
maintenance” meant toting your Yorkie in a Kelly bag, now it meant urging a man
to confront his intimacy issues.
One woman, who informed me she was feeling particularly
premenstrual, said: “‘High maintenance’ is the 21st-century way of imprisoning
women. It’s like a gaslight. Fifty years ago we would have been put in a mental
hospital, but now this is the way to shut women up. You start to edit yourself
around men because God forbid you have needs or you’re passionate or have
ideas.” A successful business consultant raised her voice as she spoke, angry
to have to defend herself again from a label she viewed as bigoted. “Men
presuppose because I’ve got a good job and I’m attractive, I’m high
maintenance,” she said. “One guy thought I was high maintenance because I had a
fur coat on that I bought!”
“I see high maintenance as challenging in a good way-challenging
a man to grow,” a slight brunette with an unwavering, intense stare said. “A
woman who’s looking for faithfulness, openness and thoughtfulness.” A man who’s
been told he looks like a white Scottie Pippen (only shorter) agreed the phrase
is most often used to describe women, but suggested a more ecumenical approach.
“It’s a derogatory term, but it can mean you have lots of feelings,” he said.
“You could say sensitive. Emotional. I would have to say I am, too.”
Several people agreed that while men are sometimes described
as high maintenance, it is far less often than women, and rarely as a shorthand
for why a relationship didn’t work.
“All a man has to say is ‘She was high maintenance,’ and
everyone understands why he got out,” said a woman who gets her hair cut at
Frédéric Fekkai and goes to three different chiropractors.
Some men equate the term with “needy.” A lawyer who’s trying
to lose 20 pounds said, “I want a woman who looks high maintenance but doesn’t
act it. I don’t want someone who needs constant affirming of the relationship.”
Other men seem to think that, if a woman wants a man to call
her, she qualifies as high maintenance. “Men act as if wanting them to call is
like a movement, like suffrage,” said my premenstrual friend. “It’s the modern
fight for our rights. Our needs are like a coup to their autonomy.” Then she
told me she had to lie down.
“Making that one phone call can make life so much easier,”
the dieting lawyer said. “But then they start to expect more. It’s the snowball
effect. Then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Why didn’t you call?'”
The most surprising detail people mentioned again and again
was something I had never really considered: that making plans in advance can
mark a woman with the dreaded H.M.
“If a woman stresses about plans, she will automatically be
considered high maintenance,” said a jeweler who told me he’s often considered
the life of the party. He called from Miami, where he and his girlfriend were
on vacation. “Plans are tricky because it’s an honest and fair issue. But the
last thing a guy wants to hear is ‘What are your plans?’, because they hear
‘Where is this relationship going? Where will it be tomorrow? Do you love me?’
A man’s ability to say ‘We’re going to a movie Saturday night’ is the same
ability to discuss going to your parents on Thanksgiving.”
The Slim Fast-ing lawyer agreed. “One of the reasons I’ve
been single so long is I hate making plans,” he said.
A photographer suggested a similar problem with her
workaholic boyfriend. “I just want to know one way or the other,” she said. “It
was somehow like I was trying to pin him down to something. In the end we were
probably going to have the plan, but he always wanted the freedom of not
This being New York, some interviewees took great pleasure
in deconstructing the phrase “high maintenance.”
“Using the term ‘high maintenance’ stems from a desire not
to have to maintain at all,” said a friend who was a semiotics major in
“When I was 21, I dated
this woman who was 28 and she said, ‘Any expectation is a limitation.’ I
thought that was really smart,” said a carpenter who lives in Washington
Over and over, I heard women say that men enter a
relationship thinking women are difficult, and therefore the men perceive
demands and expectations where none exist.
It was a point that struck home with some of the men I spoke
with. “I guess when you find the right person, what you used to think of as
high maintenance becomes just doing something nice for someone else,” said the
So what are we to do with this phrase that is both highly
explosive and tossed around like confetti? Get rid of it. In the same way
“Where’s the beef?” is an amusing link to the pop culture of our past, “high
maintenance” has seen its day and should be put out to pasture. Instead of
using labels that imply one person is to blame for problems in a relationship,
we should be thinking of new ways to describe the relationships themselves. We
owe it to future generations, whose lives will be filled with the pressures of
space traffic and sleeping in pods, to air our linguistic dirty laundry now.
And for all of you reading this in 3001, just know I tried.